Frank Lloyd Wright (Part One)

Frank Lloyd Wright

In honor of Frank Lloyd Wright’s birthday, in Part One of the series on Wright, I will discuss his life and career as one of the most famous American architects.  In Part Two, I will highlight several of his famous buildings: Wright’s home and studio in Oak Park, Illinois, Wright’s home in Arizona known as “Taliesin” and perhaps his most famous and some would say his finest architectural achievement known as “Fallingwater” which is located in Pennsylvania.

The Personal and Professional Life of Frank Lloyd Wright

Frank Lloyd Wright (born: June 8,1867 died April 9, 1959) was a famed American architect.  He was born Frank Lincoln Wright (he changed his middle name after his parents’ divorce to honor his mother’s family name) in Richland Center, Wisconsin.  His father, William Wright, was a teacher, minister and lawyer and his mother was Anna Lloyd Jones.  His father’s family had lived in Massachusetts and his mother’s family was originally from Wales and had immigrated to Spring Green, Wisconsin.

One significant example of his mother’s influence which would greatly effect Wright’s future occupation as an architect can be traced back to his early childhood.  When visiting the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia Mrs. Wright, a former teacher, purchased a set of educational blocks by Friedrich Frobel, known as “Frobel Gifts” these blocks were used as part of his innovative German Kindergarten curriculum.  A young Wright played with these geometric shaped maple wood blocks using various combinations that he built into rudimentary structures.  Interestingly when looking at Wright buildings constructed throughout his career, distinct geometric shapes are prominently used in the architectural style.

In 1870, the Wright family moved to Weymouth, Massachusetts when Mr. Wright took a job as minister of a small congregation.  After struggling financially, the family returned to Wisconsin and settled in Madison where Mr. Wright found employment as the secretary for the newly formed Unitarian society and supplemented his income by also working as a music teacher.  Mr. Wright’s musical appreciation would later influence his family, in particular his love of Johann Sebastian Bach.  (Wright would say years later that his favorite composer was Ludwig van Beethoven)  Sadly in 1885, his parents divorced after many years of an unhappy marriage and Mr. Wright left Wisconsin and severed any further ties with his children.

Wright attended Madison High School, but there is some confusion as to whether he completed his education there and received a diploma.  There are records that indicate Wright was enrolled at the University of Wisconsin – Madison where he was a part-time student for two semesters while he worked for a professor of civil engineer, Allan Conover.  Once again, he did not complete his course of education and he never received a formal degree.  (Many years later, in 1955 the University did award him an honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts)

In 1887, Wright moved to Chicago and intended to take advantage of increase construction job opportunities provided after the devastating Great Chicago Fire of 1871 which destroyed a large portion of the city.  Ultimately he found employment a draftsman for the Silsbee architecture firm but he only stayed a short time there due to the fact that the firm designed building in the heavily ornate Victorian style of architecture which was so popular with the public but Wright found unappealing.

Wright then found employment as an apprentice with the Adler & Sullivan architecture firm.  Despite the fact that Wright had problems getting along with the other employees, Sullivan saw something in Wright’s design talent and gave him increased responsibility.  After Wright met and married his first wife Catherine “Kitty” Tobin in 1889, he arranged a small loan from Sullivan to build a home for his new family and in return Wright signed a five year contract with the firm.  A property at the corner of Chicago and Forest Avenue in a suburb of Chicago known as Oak Park was purchased.  The existing house on the site was given to Wright’s mother and another home was built for him and his new wife to live in.

By this time, Wright was head draftsman with a private office.  In general Adler & Sullivan specialized in commercial buildings, but eventually Wright took commissions for private home designs which he worked on after his regular business hours for the firm in the evenings or on weekends in a personal studio set up at his home in Oak Park.  Although Wright would later claim full responsibility for these private homes in reality the general design was dictated by Sullivan, this was later confirmed through the firm’s sketches, and Wright’s contribution was often reduced to only specific details of these projects.

Throughout this time Wright struggled financially due to his extravagant lifestyle and the increasing size of his family who also spent lavishly.  Eventually to meet these increased expenses, Wright arranged private commissions which were separate from his work for the firm which he kept secret from Sullivan.  Finally Wright’s private commissions were exposed due to the fact that many of the designs were copied from work the firm had done previously and this was quickly noticed and brought to the attention of Sullivan.  (Per Wright’s contract with the firm, he was prevented from taking on outside work and it would led to his imminent departure)

Special Note: In his 1932 book, “An Autobiography”, Wright claimed that he was unaware of conditions of the original contract and that Sullivan became very hostile after he found about these private commissions.  Sullivan severely restricted any more outside work and refused to issue Wright the deed to the Oak Park house until completed the required terms of the contract with the agreed upon terms being strictly enforced.  In turn, Wright claimed the conditions were unjust given his current financial circumstances and “he walked out of the Adler and Sullivan offices never to return again”.  Eventually Dankmar Adler, the other partner of the firm, was deemed much more sympathetic to Wright and sent him the deed.

Wright opened his own architecture firm and into a space in the Steinway Hall Building which he shared with three other architects; Robert Spencer, Myron Hunt and Dwight Perkins.  Together they inspired the Arts and Crafts movement of a specific type of architectural design known as the Prairie School.  His first independent commission with his own firm was the Winslow House located in River Forest, Illinois which was completed in 1894 and it features simple horizontal lines and geometric shapes that have become typical with Wrights architectural designs.

By 1898, Wright had relocated his firm to his home studio as a means of bring both his family and his work together in one location.  This made perfect sense because, in regards to his personal life, Wright’s family had quickly expanded with several children and it would be a means of actually spending time with his family.  A secondary point that justified the move was that the firm’s current and upcoming projects were literally in the neighborhood of Oak Park or nearby River Forest and Wright could keep a close eye on the progress.  This decision to consolidate both his personal life and professional work into one location required that Wright’s home studio, which had been previously used only by him, needed to be enlarged to accommodate his employees and was eventually relocated to the north side of the house.

Wright home and studio - Oak Park

Over the next 10 years, Wright and his new firm would design and complete 50 projects mostly within the Oak Park area.  These “Prairie Houses” were specifically designed to complement the land which surrounded area around Chicago.  The exterior of the houses featured low profile buildings with sloping roofs, recessed chimneys and overhangs or terraces using unfinished materials.  The interior of the houses were designed with open floor plans featuring few walls or divisions between adjoining rooms and few obstructions creating the illusion of an expansive space.  Inspired by Wright’s interest with Japanese architecture and design, he included windows whenever possible arranged long and low allowing the interior and exterior to connect together.

At this time, Wright had also taken a special and very personal commission to replace the Unitarian church in Oak Park which had burn down in 1905; he was a member of the church which was conveniently located less than a mile from Wright’s home and studio.  The Unity Temple, church of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, is located on the corner of Lake St. and N. Kenilworth Ave.  Constructed of reinforced concrete,  the Unity Temple is considered one of Wright’s most important structures because of excellent and expansive use of a commercial space.

Unity Temple in Oak Park - exterior    Unity Temple in Oak Park - interior

Unfortunately, in 1903 when Wright took on a commission to design a house for Edwin Cheney he had no idea it would bring about shame and scandal to his family.  In recent years Wright had gained a reputation in Oak Park was as a ladies man and he quickly became interested in Mamah Cheney, the wife of Edwin.  Mamah was a modern women and was regarded was an early feminist and Wright felt like her could speak with her on any topic considering her an intellectual equal.  The two fell in love but Kitty, Wright’s wife, refused to grant him a divorce and neither would Edwin, Mamah’s husband.

In 1909, Wright had increasingly become flustered with lack of large commercial building commissions and had grown tired of designing the Prairie Style houses.  He was offered the chance to publish a book of his work by a Berlin publisher, Ernst Wasmuth and he quickly saw it as both a professional and personal opportunity.  He planned an extended trip, he was gone almost a year, traveling from Germany to Italy to study European architecture and he also decided to take Mamah with him leaving both their spouses and children behind.  While in Europe, Edwin was granted a divorce from Mamah but Kitty still refused a divorce from Wright.

When Wright returned from his trip in October 1910 he knew he could not continue to live in Oak Park with his estranged wife.  The solution to the problem came when Wright persuaded his mother to purchase a large property adjacent to the land currently owned by the Lloyd-Jones (his Mother’s relatives) family in Spring Green, Wisconsin.  By May 1911, Wright’s new home was completed and he called it Taliesin.  The name was connected to his mother’s Welsh heritage and the Celtic meaning is bard or a male poet.

Taliesin  - Wisconsin

Finally, after 10 years, Kitty agreed to the divorce from Wright but the under the terms of the decree required Wright to wait a full year before he could remarry.  By that time Wright and Mamah had parted company and Wright was involved with Maude “Miriam” Noel.  The couple married in November 1923 but due to Miriam’s addiction to morphine the marriage last less than a year.

In 1924, Wright was separated from Miriam but not yet divorced when he met Olgiyanna “Olga” Hinzenburg and the two quickly fell in love.  Unfortunately, Olga was still married (she and her husband had a small daughter named Svetlana) but that didn’t prevent her and Wright from moving in together at Taliesin in 1925, at the time Olga was pregnant with Wright’s child, a daughter named Iovanna who was born in December of that same year.  Finally by 1927 Wright’s divorce from his second wife was finalized and a year later Wright and Olgiyanna were married in August 1928.

After the drama of his personal life, his professional life was moving in an interesting direction.  Wright had moved from his Prairie Style design style toward a design he called “Organic Style” of architecture.  In the 1920s, he built several houses in California using concrete blocks reinforced with metal bars; this technique was used for the first time on the John Storer House located in Hollywood, CaliforniaThe 16 X 16 inch blocks were double stacked with an air gap between the blocks to provide insulation within the walls of the structure and then reinforced both horizontally and vertically with bars.  When completed, special care was then taken with the landscape plantings surrounding the structure to give the appearance of perfect harmony nature.

By the 1930s Wright had mastered the Organic Style of architecture and had used the technique to build Fallingwater located in Mill Run, Pennsylvania and Taliesin West which was Wright’s winter home and studio complex located in Scottsdale, Arizona.  Fallingwater was built between 1934 and 1937 as a private residence for Mr. and Mrs. Edgar Kaufmann.  Uniquely constructed over a 30 foot waterfall, the three bedroom house was built in a series of cantilevered terraces which used limestone for the vertical and concrete for the horizontal elements.  At the cost of $155,00 is was one of Wright’s most expensive commissions to date.  Unfortunately by the 1990s, Fallingwater was found to require structural reinforcement and steel supports were added to the lowest cantilever terrace and by March 2002 the project was completed.  Taliesin West was used by Wright as the firm’s studio and was Wright’s last residence from 1937 until his death.  Currently Taliesin West continues to be used as site of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture and is also the location of the Frank Lloyd Wright Foundation and Archives.


Finally, the Solomon Guggenheim Museum in New York City was the last project personally overseen by Wright and built during the last 16 years of his life.  The Guggenheim Museum building seems to rise in a unique spiral from Fifth Avenue.  Wright’s original idea intended that visitors would take an elevator to the top floor and then view the Museum’s artwork by slowly descending on a central twisted ramp which was designed to resemble the inside of a seashell but when the construction was completed Wright’s design concept was generally ignored and today’s the Museum art collection is arranged to be viewed by walking up instead of down the curved walkway.

    Guggenheim Museum interior

Frank Lloyd Wright died on April 9, 1959 at the age of 91 shortly after surgery performed in Phoenix, Arizona to remove an intestinal obstruction.  Wright was survived by his third wife Olga and the children from his three marriages, four boys and three daughters.  He was buried at the Lloyd-Jones cemetery near Taliesin, his beloved home in Spring Green, Wisconsin.

Frank Lloyd Wright gravesite in Spring Green Wisconsin 1

Frank Lloyd Wright gravesite in Spring Green Wisconsin 3    Frank Lloyd Wright gravesite in Spring Green Wisconsin 2

Twenty-five years later, Olga died in 1985 and it was her dying request to have herself and Wright cremated together and interred in a memorial garden in Taliesin West., Arizona.  The remaining Wright family members tried to fight the request and petitioned the courts in Wisconsin to have the architect’s body remain at the Spring Green cemetery.  The final decision was made by Iovanna Wright, the daughter of Frank Lloyd and Olga, who signed the exhumation order.  There are some people that doubt that this is what the architect would have wanted given his close ties to the Midwest and Wisconsin in particular.  Another reason for doubt in granting the request was the emotional state of Iovanna given the fact that she had been living in a private sanitarium in Connecticut for several years.  Regardless of these circumstances, the ashes of Wright and Olga cremated together and then buried in Taliesin West, Arizona and the original grave site in Wisconsin is now empty but it is still marked with Wright’s name.

Wrignt home - Taliesin in Arizona

Celebration – British Royal Wedding Dresses (Part One)

Last year I did a four part series on the British Royal Weddings starting several centuries in the past with the marriage of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1840 through to the marriage of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011.  England has always been known for their grand pageantry and traditions especially concerning a Royal wedding.  I remember being very excited to wake up early in the morning to watch the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer in 1981; it was the first wedding of the heir to the British throne since Princess Elizabeth’s marriage to Prince Phillip back in 1947.  Of course, everyone was anxious to see Diana’s dress made by British dress designers David and Elizabeth Emanuel and it was keep a closely guarded secret until the wedding day.  (For more information on Princess Diana’s wedding dress, please click on Part Two)

In this post, the first of the two part series on Royal Wedding Dresses, I will start with Queen Victoria who married Prince Albert in 1840 through to the Duchess of Windsor who married the Duke of Windsor in 1937.  The Duke, the former King Edward VIII, had abdicated in 1936 amid scandal and disastrous worldwide publicity.  I know normally Wallis Simpson is not included when discussing the British Royal family but she was known for her great fashion style and for this reason there is a brief description of her wedding dress at the end of this post.

Queen Victoria’s wedding dress

Queen Victoria married Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha on February 10, 1839 in the Chapel Royal at St. James Palace.  It has been said that Queen Victoria started a bridal custom of wearing a white or ivory wedding gown.  Prior to that time royal brides wore elaborate dresses made especially for the occasion from gold or silver fabric sometimes embroidered with silken threads and embellished with semi-precious stones to show their wealthy status.  Ordinary brides of the working class wore their “best dress” usually made in a dark and durable material.

Queen Victoria wedding dress

Queen Victoria wedding dress closeup bodice    Queen Victoria wedding dress closeup sleeve

Queen Victoria wore a white satin dress which featured a separate bodice top and a full skirt.  The bodice had a round neckline with a pointed waist decorated with piping and short full sleeves trimmed with Honiton lace that gathered into double puffs.  The skirt was gently gathered at the waist into deep pleats and featured a court train that measured 18 feet in length that had a border of orange blossom sprays that matched the head wreath that Queen Victoria wore on her head to secure a square Honiton lace veil.  Orange blossoms were a wedding tradition often worn to symbolize fertility and purity.

VictoriaRoyal Note:  Queen Victoria continued to wear her bridal veil long after her wedding day and she wore it for the christenings of her nine children with the exception of her eldest son, Prince Albert (later King Edward VII), when she wore her Garter robes to mark the grand occasion of the christening of the heir to the British throne. She also wore it for the marriage ceremonies of two of her children, eldest daughter Victoria’s wedding in 1858 and her youngest son Leopold’s wedding in 1882, and also for the wedding of her grandson George’s (later King George VI) wedding in 1893.  Queen Victoria’s youngest child, daughter Princess Beatrice, was given the distinct honor of wearing the Queen’s bridal veil for her own wedding in 1885.  Queen Victoria wore her bridal veil one final time in 1897 for her official photograph on the occasion of her Diamond Jubilee and when she died in 1901 her request was to be buried with her wedding veil.

To complete her bridal ensemble, Queen Victoria wore a necklace and earrings set made from Turkish diamonds.  In 1838, almost two years prior to her wedding, the Queen received several diamonds as a gift from the Sultan of Turkey.  These diamonds were made into a necklace and earrings set by the Royal Jewelers, Rundells and Bridge.  The necklace features several diamond rosettes on a strand made of even more diamonds.  The earrings were made in a similar style and were considered quite heavy to wear.  Records indicate that upon her death in 1901, the set was given to her son, the Duke of Connaught.  Unfortunately, the set is no longer a part of the Royal Collection and has since disappeared with its whereabouts unknown.

Also, on her wedding day, Queen Victoria also received another significant piece of jewelry, a beautiful sapphire and diamond brooch which she wore attached to the bodice of her wedding dress.  The brooch was a wedding gift from Prince Albert and after her death it became the personal property of the British crown and, on special occasions it is still currently being worn today by Queen Elizabeth II.  (For information on this item of historical jewelry and a brief description of the brooch, please on the link to The Queen’s Personal Jewel Collection)

Special Note:  Queen Victoria’s wedding gown is preserved and is now part of the British Royal collection and was most recently put on display at Kensington Palace in 2012.  It is doubtful as to whether the dress will be further exhibited due its fragile condition.  The wedding dresses of the additional Royal brides mentioned in this post, with the exception of the Duchess of Windsor’s dress, are also part of the British Royal collection which were also displayed at Kensington Palace in 2012.  Hopefully, these historical fashions will be exhibited again in the near future.

Princess Alexandra of Denmark’s wedding dress

Princess Alexandra of Denmark married Prince Albert the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) on March 10, 1863 in St. George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.  At the time the Royal court was still in mourning after the unexpected death of Queen Victoria’s husband, Prince Albert in December 1861. The strict rules that dictated the mourning customs of the time meant that the royal court was required to wear shades of grey, lilac or mauve.  Queen Victoria, who was devastated by the death, wore a black dress for the wedding and wearing black is something that she continued to do for the remainder of her life.  She also refused to take part in the ceremony and watched from a secluded area in the St. George Chapel.

Princess Alexandra

The exception to the mourning custom was the elaborate ivory silk taffeta wedding gown worn by the eighteen year old bride, Princess Alexandra, which was made by Mrs. James who worked out of her design studio in Belgravia.  The dress featured a separate bodice top and a full skirt which had an overlay of Honiton lace with a design that incorporated roses, shamrocks and thistles designs which were symbols of England, Ireland and Scotland.  The skirt featured a 21 foot train of antique silver moiré which was carried by the eight bridesmaids as the Princess entered St. George’s Chapel on her wedding day.  The dress was also trimmed with orange blossoms and the Princess also wore a white Honiton lace veil that was secured on her head by a wreath of orange blossoms and myrtle.

To complete her bridal ensemble, Princess Alexandra wore a diamond necklace and matching earrings which were complimented by a pearl and diamond brooch worn on the bodice of her wedding dress.  The jewelry was presented to her before her wedding day as a gift from her husband, Prince Albert the Prince of Wales.  The Queen gave her an opal and diamond bracelet.

Princess Mary of Teck’s wedding dress

On July 6 1893 Princess Mary of Teck married Prince George (later King George V) in the Chapel Royal at St. James Palace.  Princess Mary had been previously engaged to Prince Albert, the brother of Prince George.  Sadly, Prince Albert died suddenly of pneumonia on January 14, 1892 and, concerned about the line of succession, Queen Victoria strongly encouraged her grandson, Prince George, to marry his deceased brother’s former fiancé who the Queen had become very fond of.

Because Prince Albert had died only a few weeks before their anticipated wedding, Princess Mary had already had her dress made and obviously after the tragedy, due to the emotions involved, it could no longer be worn.  After a period of mourning, Princess Mary and Prince George had spent an increasingly amount of time to together grieving the loss of Prince Albert.  The Royal couple soon fell in love, became engaged and a wedding date was set.  Of course, a new bridal dress was needed and one was created by British designer Arthur Silver.

On her wedding day, Princess Mary wore an ivory silk satin dress accented with a design of roses, shamrocks and thistles in silver thread.  In keeping with the tradition set by Queen Victoria and later by Princess Alexandra, the entire bridal dress was made by English manufacturers.  The dress also featured Honiton lace and garlands of orange blossoms.

Mary of Teck wedding 1    Mary of Teck wedding dress 1

The Princess wore a small veil made of Honiton lace which was borrowed from the bride’s mother, Princess Mary Adelaide the Duchess of Teck, and had been worn previously on her wedding day in 1866.  To attach the veil to the back of Princess Mary’s head a set of diamond Rose of York pins were used to secure it in place, the generous gift from Queen Victoria. To complete her bridal ensemble the bride also wore a diamond necklace from Prince George’s parents, the Prince and Princess of Wales and a diamond tiara from Queen Victoria and finally diamond earrings and brooch from her groom, Prince George.

Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon ’s wedding dress

Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon married Prince Albert (late King George VI) on April 26, 1923 in Westminster Abbey located in London.  Elizabeth’s wedding dress was designed by Madame Handley Seymour, the former London court dressmaker to Queen Mary.  The dress was a simple medieval style made from ivory chiffon moiré which featured a square neckline with a bodice that was cut straight to the waist and decorated with horizontal silver lame panels that were heavily gold embroidered with pearl and paste beads.  The front of the skirt was gently gathered at the waist and had a vertical silver lame panel that was also decorated with more gold embroidery edged with pearl and paste beads.  The back of the skirt extended into a separate train that spread to 80 inches wide and a second train of green tulle that flowed from the shoulders.   Superstition of the time suggests wearing green on a wedding day would bring the bride bad luck, but Elizabeth choose to disregard the old custom.  (One unfortunate note to make, is that the 1920s style of her wedding dress did not really complement the short and fuller figure of Elizabeth and would have better suited a taller and slimmer women)

York Wedding

Lady Elizabeth wore an antique ivory veil made of Flanders lace veil and secured in place on her head with a simple wreath of myrtle leaves with a cluster of white York roses and white heather positioned on either side of her head.  The veil was presented to the bride from her future mother-in-law, Queen Mary, to wear on the wedding day.  For the bride’s “something old”, a piece of Brussels lace said to be a Strathmore family heirloom, was added to the wedding dress.  The lace had been originally used on the ballgown of a relative.  To complete the bridal ensemble, Elizabeth’s shoes were made from ivory silk moiré and embroidered with silver roses.

Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor’s wedding dress

In less than a year after his abdication, the exiled Edward the Duke of Windsor married Wallis Simpson on June 3, 1937 at the Château de Candé located in France.  Wallis had always been known for her high fashion style and her bridal dress was destined to became one of the most photographed and most copied dresses of that time.

The designer of the dress was an American named Main Rousseau Bocher, who became known in the fashion industry as Mainbocher, and he was working in Paris at the time of the marriage.  Since this would be the Duchess’ third and final marriage, the dress was made in a beautiful light shade of periwinkle blue.  It has been said that the color was specifically chosen to match the Duchess’ eyes and it would later become her signature color called “Wallis blue”.  The bridal dress was made of silk crepe and featured a long slim skirt that slightly flared at the bottom and a long sleeve jacket with a high collar, soft gathering below the bust line and a button closure.

Duchess of Windsor wedding 1    Duchess of Windsor wedding 2

The Duchess wore blue silk crepe gloves which were specifically designed to match the dress and also to accommodate her large engagement ring.  She wore blue leather shoes made by a company called Georgette.  On her head, she wore a blue straw hat made by Caroline Reboux which was accented with coq feathers and blue tulle which unknowingly created an image of a halo.  (Special Note: In 1950, the Duchess donated the entire bridal ensemble to the Metropolitan Museum located in New York City.  Unfortunately, over the years the dress has lost the lovely blue color because of the defective dye used in making the material)

Prior to their marriage, the Duke of Windsor was known to generously lavish the Duchess with extravagant jewelry.  On her wedding day, the bride wore a Van Cleef & Arpels Art Deco brooch featuring oval sapphires and baguette diamonds which the Duchess wore attached at the neckline of her dress.  She also wore two important pieces of jewelry, on one wrist she wore the large Van Cleef & Arpels sapphire and diamond bracelet which had been engraved with the words, “For our contract 18.V.37” to commemorate the civil ceremony that was so important to the couple.  On her other wrist she wore a Cartier bracelet that featured crosses set with precious gemstones, each charm was engraved with special engraving noting various special occasions over the years.  (If you are interested in more information about the Duchess of Windsor’s Jewelry Collection, please click on the link)

Celebration – Christmas at Sandringham

Sandringham in the winter

The history of the Sandringham Estate dates back to the time of Prince Albert, later known as King Edward VII, who was the eldest son of Queen Victoria.  In 1862, the Queen had purchased the property located in Norfolk, England for him shortly before his marriage to Princess Alexandra of Denmark in 1863.  The Royal couple made Sandaringham their country home and stayed there frequently when they were not in London to fulfill their official royal duties.  Over the next 150 years the Sandringham Estate has been used continuously by four generations of the British Royal Family and is currently privately owned by Queen Elizabeth II.   (For additional information about the history of the Sandringham Estate, please click on the link)

In 1926, the Queen, then known as Princess Elizabeth, was just eight months old when she first accompanied her parents, the Duke and Duchess of York, on a visit to Sandringham to see her grandparents, King George V and Queen Mary.  During the reign of King George V the annual tradition of spending Christmas at Sandringham was started and continued throughout the years of his reign until his death in 1936.  His son, King George VI, choose to continue the custom for another sixteen years until his own death at Sandringham in 1952.  Since that time, Queen Elizabeth has also chosen to spend the holiday season at Sandringham privately with her family but more importantly she uses the time for personal reflection on the anniversary of her father’s death in January and her own accession to the British throne.  Sandringham has become the official winter residence of the Queen every year from just before Christmas until sometime in the month of February.  She will spend the days privately with her family enjoying the beautiful grounds, hunting and riding.

The Queen will travel on the morning train from London to Sandringham a few days before Christmas to supervise the final holiday preparations and the members of the Royal Family will arrive at Sandringham House on Christmas Eve.  Even though this is a family celebration, strict protocol is observed and even the order of arrival is coordinated based on seniority determined by the line of succession with Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, arriving last since the Prince of Wales is the immediate heir to the throne.  Each of the Royal Family members has arrived at Sandringham with several pieces of luggage because they are expected to change outfits several times throughout each day of their stay for a variety of activities; such as afternoon tea, hunting or riding and formal dinners.  Finally, upon arrival at Sandringham, each person will be given an itinerary listing the events that will take place over the next few days with their scheduled times.

Sandringham - 2013 Queen Elizabeth traveling to Norfolk by train

On Christmas Eve, promptly at 4 pm, family members will gather for a traditional English tea which includes fresh baked scones and Earl Grey tea is served in the White Drawing Room.  Everyone will have freshen-up after their journey to Sandringham and after a brief rest they will have changed into beautiful tea dresses for the women and tweed suits for the men.  Standing in a place of prominence in the White Drawing Room will be a Norfolk spruce tree which has been cut from somewhere on the 1,000 acre Sandringham Estate and the younger members of the family will gather around to finish putting the ornaments and trimmings on the Christmas tree.

After the tea service, everyone will proceed into the Red Drawing Room to open the presents since the Queen prefers to have it done of Christmas Eve in order to reserve Christmas Day as a more solemn religious celebration.  Around the perimeter of the Red Drawing Room there are several trestle tables set up for each member of the Royal Family and, of course in keeping with tradition, the tables are organized in order of precedence and labeled with their names.  Despite the wealth of the Royal Family, inexpensive and humorous gifts are given and preferred over more expensive gifts.  Princess Diana found this out the hard way when after her marriage to Prince Charles and on her first Royal Christmas at Sandringham she bought cashmere sweaters and other expensive items for her new in-laws.

Xmas 4

After opening the presents, everyone will return to their rooms to change into formal clothes for dinner, women will wear elegant evening gowns with their best jewels and men will be dressed in black tie.  The dinner gong rings promptly at 8 pm to call guests for pre-dinner drinks.  Then at 8:15 pm the Queen will lead everyone into Sandringham’s formal dining room which is aglow with candlelight and the table is set with the finest china, silver and crystal.  The three-course dinner will be finished around 10 pm and then the Queen and the other ladies will move into another room for coffee while the Duke of Edinburgh will remain with the other men in the dining room for brandy but at the request of the Queen there is no cigarette or cigar smoking.  Afterwards the two groups will join together to possibly play cards or other games and the evening will end at around midnight when the Queen retires for the evening, strict protocol requires that everyone remains at the party until the Queen goes up to her bedroom.

Christmas Day starts relatively early for the Royal Family with a full English breakfast, usually consisting of bacon, sausages, kippers and kidneys and a variety of side dishes.  After eating, the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh will take a car while everyone else will walk to the nearby St. Mary Magdalene church to attend the 11 am Christmas service.  Along the path from Sandringham House to the church, people of the estate and neighboring villages will gather for a chance to see the Royal Family and offer their best wishes of “Happy Christmas”.  (For more information about the history and architecture of St. Mary Magdalene church, please click on the link to the Travel post about the Sandringham Estate)

Sandringham Christmas - 2013 Queen arriving at church    Sandringham Christmas - 2013 royals walk to church 1

After the church services, the Royal Family will return to Sandringham House to enjoy a traditional Christmas lunch that includes a Norfolk turkey and a selection of side dishes.  Then, after lunch everyone will gather at 3 pm to watch the Queen’s speech on television which is a long standing annual event broadcast on television for England and the British Commonwealth on Christmas Day, the Queen prefers to watch the broadcast in the privacy of her room.

Sandringham Christmas - dining table 1

The custom of the Christmas message was started by the Queen’s grandfather, King George V, when he gave the first one by radio in 1932 from Sandringham House where two small rooms were temporary converted into BBC radio broadcast rooms.  King George V continued to give three more Christmas Messages until 1935; he died less than a month later in 1936.  There was no Christmas message during 1936 from his successor, King Edward VIII, who had abdicated later that year after a brief reign.  King George VI gave his first Christmas Message in 1937 graciously thanking the British people for their support during the first year of his reign; there was no Christmas broadcast in 1938.  It wasn’t until 1939 and the start of World War II that the Christmas broadcast became an annual tradition.  At that time, King George VI gave a special message which offered comforting words to reassure the British people during the difficult times.  For the King’s final broadcast in 1951, the radio message was pre-recorded rather than delivered live due to his difficulty in speaking due to his prolonged illness.

Sandringham - 1934 King George V Royal Christmas Message    Sandringham - 1939 King George VI Royal Christmas Message

After the King’s death in February 1952, Queen Elizabeth II gave her first Christmas message later that same year.  She spoke of carrying on the tradition passed on by her grandfather and father, sitting at the same desk as they did, and asking for the nation to pray for her on the event of her coronation scheduled for the next summer.  The Queen continued the annual radio broadcast until 1957 when she made the first televised Christmas message.  Prior to 1960, the message was always broadcast live and then starting that year the speech was pre-recorded in advance to be played on Christmas Day.  Usually the location for the filming has been Buckingham Palace but other locations have been Windsor and Sandringham.  Throughout the years, with the exception of 1969 when no speech was given, the Queen has used the broadcast as a way to speak directly to her audience about world, national and even personal events of the past year.

Sandringham Christmas - Queen's address

After watching the Christmas Message broadcast the Royal family will play charades, board games or go for a walk around the grounds of the Sandringham Estate.  Later in the evening, an informal dinner is served and then perhaps more games or cards or simply spending time together relaxing before everyone retires for the evening.

The day after Christmas is known as Boxing Day in Britain and is traditionally when servants would receive gifts, a “Christmas Box”, from their employers.  The day at Sandringham usually begins with a kedgeree breakfast; it is a cooked fish dish made of boiled rice, parsley, hard-boiled eggs, curry powder, butter or cream.  After the meal, members of the Royal Family will participate in a traditional pheasant shoot.  The men are the only people who are allowed to take part in the shoot while ladies usually do not participate since they are customarily not allowed to use a gun in the presence of the queen. Once the shoot is over, everyone will start to leave to enjoy the rest of the holidays with other family members.  The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh will remain at Sandringham for several more weeks until they depart sometime in February.

Celebration – The Bracebridge Dinner at the Ahwanhee Hotel

Bracebridge Dinner - present dayThe Bracebridge Dinner is a lovely holiday tradition that is held annually in Yosemite National Park every Christmas season.  The first Bracebridge took place back in 1927 and is still currently being held over 85 years later in the Yosemite Valley at the world renowned Ahwahnee Hotel.  Every year the grand dining room of the Ahwahnee is transformed into an 18th century English manor that is inspired by a 1822 Washington Irving story, “Bracebridge Hall” as told in his book “The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent”.  (Irving is also famous for another story called “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, and please click on the link for more information about that classic tale about the headless horseman)

Ahwanhee dining room - Bracebridge Dinner 1

The Bracebridge Dinner is a three hour pageant of theatrical and musical performances that includes a seven-course formal dinner.  The tradition was started by Don Tresidder, president of the Yosemite Park and Curry Company, to celebrate the first Christmas after the majestic Ahwahnee Hotel was opened in 1927.  The character of the Squire Bracebridge was played by Tresidder himself, the character of Lady Bracebridge was played by his wife Mary Curry and Ansel Adams (the famous photographer) played the court jester.

Bracebridge Dinner circa 1927    Ansel Adams as the jester 1

The Bracebridge was been held annually since 1927 with the exception of the years during World War II when the Ahwahnee Hotel was commissioned by the United States government for use as a Naval Hospital.  When the tradition resumed in 1946 several new chorale musical performances were added.  Then shortly after the 1948 Bracebridge, Don Tresidder died of a sudden heart attack.  Heartbroken at the loss of the prominent Yosemite resident there was much debate over whether the show would even continue or the possibly of eliminating the role of the Squire since the part had always been played by Tresidder.  It was finally determined that the character of the Squire would remain in the show but over the years the part of the Squire as narrator was eventually reduced to a smaller role.

Bracebridge Dinner - present day 1

Throughout the years, Ansel Adams went on to serve as the production’s musical director and later the part of Major Domo, the head of the Bracebridge household, was created especially for him and the part of the housekeeper was played by his wife Virginia Best Adams. Adams also served as the musical director and official photographer and he still continued performing in the Bracebridge until his retirement in 1973.  Eugene Fulton, who had been a member of the male chorus since 1934, took over as musical director in 1946 and after Adams retirement he became the producer of the show.  Sadly, Fulton died suddenly on Christmas Eve in 1978.  His wife, Anna Marie and his daughter, Andrea took over the production of the Bracebridge for the remaining performances that year.  Eventually Andrea went onto to become the show’s director as well as playing the role of the housekeeper.  Finally, in 2013 the lottery process which had been previously used to obtain tickets for the popular Bracebridge Dinner was eliminated and now reservations are accepted in the order in which they are received.

Ahwanhee Hotel in winter

The history of the Ahwanhee Hotel

The Ahwahneechee Native Americans had long settled in the area when the Mariposa Battalion, a California militia group, entered the Yosemite Valley in 1851 to fight in the Mariposa War caused by the 1849 California Gold Rush.  Shortly after, white settlers arrived to build homes and visitors came to enjoy spectacular views of El Captain, Half Dome and Yosemite Falls.  In 1864, President Abraham Lincoln signed a federal bill in 1864 granting the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to State of California.  John Muir, a local naturalist with concerns for the protection of the environment, eventually lobbied for the creation of the Yosemite National Park which happened in 1890.

Visitors continued to be drawn to the beauty of Yosemite National Park and the demand for tourist accommodations steadily increased throughout the years.  In 1899 David and Jennie Curry arrived in the Yosemite Valley and soon developed several rustic cabins and campsites that became known as Curry Village.  Then, in 1917, the Yosemite Lodge was built near the base of Yosemite Falls and was the first of the Park’s traditional hotel style accommodations.

By the early 1920s, there was a need for more luxurious accommodations for the more wealthy and affluent tourists.  The Ahwanhee Hotel took eleven months to construct, cost over one million dollars to build and opened in July 1927.  It is a wonderful example of rustic elegance built in an Arts & Craft style of architecture which was very popular at the time.  It is constructed of 5,000 tons of granite, 1,000 tons of steel and 30,000 feet of wood and furnished with a unique blend of Art Deco and Native American decorating styles.

The Great Lounge of the Ahwanhee is 77 feet long and 51 feet wide with 24 foot high ceilings.  Other features of the room include 10 floor-to-ceiling windows topped by beautiful stained glass panels and there is also a massive stone fireplace with couches, chairs and tables that offers an inviting place for visitors to gather.  The room is decorated with Native American hand-woven baskets and massive wrought iron chandeliers.

Ahwanhee - Lounge

Other public rooms of the Ahwanhee include the Solarium which has massive windows on three sides of the room that have lovely views across the valley with Glacier Point in the distance.  (This area room is often used for wedding ceremonies and receptions as well as other special events)  The Mural Room is beautifully decorated with an impressive mural showing the various flowers and plants of Yosemite Valley.  The room is elegantly paneled in wood with a copper-hooded fireplace and French doors that open onto a patio and the nicely landscaped grounds.

Ahwanhee - Mural Room 1

One of the most impressive rooms of the Ahwanhee is the grand Dining Room which is 130 feet long, 51 feet wide and features a 34 foot ceiling supported by wooden beams made from sugar pine and supported by large granite stone columns, there are also floor-to-ceiling windows framed with stained glass panels.  The Ahwanhee Dining Room offers visitors the finest dining within Yosemite National Park and a more formal dress code is required.  (This room is where the annual Bracebridge Dinners are held during the Christmas season)

Ahwanhee - Dining Room

During World War II, the Ahwahnee Hotel was commissioned by the United States government for use as a Naval Hospital.  The famous Bracebridge Dinner was not held during that time and eventually the tradition resumed in 1946.  Over the years, the Ahwanhee added an outdoor swimming pool and modernized the hotel with elevators and a fire alarm system including smoke detectors and a sprinkler system.

For more information regarding the Ahwanhee Hotel and to make reservations, please see their website  For information about planning a visit to Yosemite National Park, please see their website

Ahwanhee Hotel

Celebration – The Wedding of Grace Kelly to Prince Rainier

In honor of Grace Kelly (born: November 12, 1929  died: September 14, 1982) I would like to take a look back to 1956 and her wedding to Prince Rainier III of Monaco which was then dubbed “the wedding of the century”.

In 1955, Grace Kelly had been invited to attend the Cannes Film Festival in the south of France because her latest film “The Country Girl” was being shown at the prestigious event; the next year she would receive the Best Actress Academy Award for her performance in the film.  Grace had enjoyed the south of France when she had previously been there to film another movie, the 1955 Alfred Hitchcock film “To Catch a Thief” costarring Cary Grant.  While on her European tour promote her latest film her publicist arranged to do a French magazine photo shoot for Paris Match at the Palace of Monaco where she was also scheduled to meet Prince Rainer.  Grace had tried to cancel the meeting due to numerous complications but she was encouraged keep the appointment despite the fact that she was unprepared.  It seems that her hotel had a power failure caused by a workers strike and she only had one dress pressed and ready to wear.  Unfortunately, the dress was not one of her best and it was a black silk taffeta printed with large flowers, a square neckline, long sleeves, dropped waist tied with a sash.  Since she had missed her salon appointment that day, her usually perfectly coiffured hair was severely pulled back with artificial flowers.  Finally, Grace arrived at the Palace to meet the charming Prince Rainer of the small 370 acre principality located near the south of France that had been ruled by the House of Grimaldi since 1297.  The Prince gave Grace a personal tour of the Palace gardens and his private zoo located on the grounds but it was far from an intimate meeting since they were accompanied by several photographers and members of the royal staff.

Grace Kelly first meeting with Prince Rainier - magazine article    Grace Kelly first meeting with Prince Rainier

Following this friendly first meeting, the Prince was impressed by Grace who was the glamorous Hollywood movie star and Grace thought that the Prince was a charming gentleman.  Afterwards, Grace returned to the United States to continue making movies.  The two began writing each other letters and through their correspondence they were allowed the chance to get to know each other.  As the months passed the royal chaplain of Monaco thought that the Prince had possibly found a potential wife and he encouraged him to continue his courtship of Grace.  Then, just before Christmas, the Prince accompanied by the chaplain travelled to the United States to visit with the Kelly family in Philadelphia.  This visit allowed the Prince and Grace to see each other again and the Kelly family was immediately charmed by their daughter’s suitor and also encouraged the match.  After Christmas the couple went to New York City to celebrate New Year’s Eve and that is when the Prince proposed and presented Grace with an engagement ring.  The Cartier ring had a 10.47 carat emerald diamond in a platinum setting with smaller baguette diamonds on each side.

Grace Kelly engagement to Prince Rainier    Grace Kelly's Cartier engagement ring

Immediately after her engagement was announced, Grace started planning for a spring wedding which would take place eight months later in Monaco.  There were in fact two wedding ceremonies, one was the required civil ceremony and the second one was a larger religious ceremony attended by 600 guests.  An estimated 30 million people watched the television coverage.  (This is an amazing statistic considering the fact that television was a relatively new media and remember this was before the 1981 marriage of Prince Charles and Diana.  For more information on regarding the British Royal Wedding, please see Part 4 of the series)

The Civil Ceremony

The civil ceremony of Prince Rainer and Grace Kelly took place in the throne room of the Monaco Palace on April 18, 1956.  The required civil ceremony took place before the religious ceremony and was performed by the Monaco Minister of Justice, with the vows exchanged in French, and there were only 80 guests in attendance.  Grace wore a dress created by Helen Rose, the MGM studio costume designer, who also made the bridal dress for the religious ceremony which was performed the next day.  The dress for the civil ceremony was a pale pink taffeta with an overlay of cream colored Alencon lace designed with a fitted bodice, high collar and a flared skirt which she accessorized with gloves and a hat.  Prince Rainer wore striped trousers, a white vest and a black morning coat.

Wedding of Prince Rainer and Grace Kelly - civil ceremony

Grace Kelly civil ceremony dress 2    Grace Kelly civil ceremony dress 1

Immediately after the ceremony there was a celebration and the Prince along with his new Princess took the time to shake hands with the 3,000 citizens of Monaco that were their invited guests.  Later that same night, the couple attended an elegant gala which was held in their honor at the Monaco Opera House.  Grace wore a lovely Lanvin ballgown made of white silk organdy with a deep v-neck, high waistline with a full bustle and the dress was hand-embroidered and decorated with pearls, rhinestones and sequins.

The Religious Ceremony

The religious ceremony for Prince Rainier and Grace Kelly was held the day after the civil ceremony.  It took place on April 19, 1955 at the St. Nicholas Cathedral and was a high mass celebrated by the Bishop of Monaco with 600 guests in attendance including Cary Grant, David Niven, Ava Gardner and several international heads of state and other diplomats.  The church was decorated with floral arrangements of white lilacs, hydrangeas, lilies and snapdragons.

Wedding of Prince Rainer and Grace Kelly - religious service    Wedding of Prince Rainer and Grace Kelly - religious service 1

The Matron of Honor was Grace’s sister, Peggy, and there were also six bridesmaids.  They all wore yellow silk taffeta dresses with a yellow organdy overlay purchased from the Neiman Marcus department store and made by Priscilla Kidder (later owner of the successful bridal clothing line of Priscilla of Boston).  To complete the wedding party there were six junior attendants, four girls and two boys, which were all dressed in white.

Grace Kelly with her bridesmaids

After the ceremony, Prince Rainier and Grace rode from the church through the streets back to the Palace in a cream and black Rolls Royce convertible that was a gift from the people of Monaco.  The Palace’s Court of Honor was the location of a grand reception which featured a six tier wedding cake that was cut using the Prince’s sword.

Wedding of Prince Rainer and Grace Kelly - wedding cake 1    Wedding of Prince Rainer and Grace Kelly - reception

The Wedding Dress

As a gift to Grace Kelly from the MGM studio, Helen Rose, their costume designer created a beautiful bridal dress for her wedding to Prince Rainier and has remained one of the most famous and iconic wedding dress for decades.  (… that is until 2011 and the wedding dress Kate Middleton wore when she married Prince William.  It has been said that Grace’s bridal dress was the inspiration and had a direct influence on the design of Kate’s dress.  For more information on Prince William and Kate’s royal wedding, please see British Royal Wedding – Part 4)

Grace Kelly and Kate Middleton's wedding dresses

Grace’s wedding dress was a stunning creation which was made at the MGM studios and it took six weeks using three dozen seamstresses and cost an estimated $7200.00.  The dress used twenty-five yards of silk taffeta, one hundred yards of silk netting, tulle, peau de soie and antique Brussels lace that was over 125 years old.  (peau de soie is a soft silk fabric of satin weave which has a dull finish)  The elegant dress was designed with a high collar, long sleeves, a fitted bodice, a full skirt and a train that measured three feet in length.  Additionally, the bodice had a structured under bodice for support and two petticoats were worn underneath to provide fullness to the skirt.

Grace Kelly wedding dress front    Grace Kelly wedding dress back 1

A Juliet cap was also made to compliment the dress and worn on the back of the head with three points at the hairline and a circular shape in the back.  The headpiece used the same pearl embroidered lace as the bodice and was stretched over a wire frame.  It was decorated with seed pearls and small wax orange blossoms.  Attached to the headpiece was a circular wedding veil which was waist length in the front and then gradually longer towards the back.  The veil used 90 yards of tulle and is edged with lace but was left sheer in the front to provide an unobstructed view of Grace’s face.

Grace Kelly wedding dress bodice

Grace completed her bridal ensemble with shoes custom made by David Evins, a leading American shoe maker that Grace had previously worked with.  The wedding shoes were covered with lace to match the dress and had a 2 ½ inch heels.  Grace also requested that a copper penny be added to her right shoe, a traditional good luck charm for brides, and one was sewn into the arch of the shoe.

Grace Kelly bridal shoes

Finally, on her wedding day Grace carried a small bouquet made of Lilies of the Valley and a small Bible.  The bible was a gift from a family friend and a custom cover was made by the MGM wardrobe department of silk faille with a lace applique overlay embellished with seed pearls.

Grace Kelly wedding bible    Grace Kelly wedding bible 1

Prince Rainier wore a Napoleonic styled military uniform which he personally designed.

Wedding of Prince Rainer and Grace Kelly 1